A Look at the United States Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

Today marks the last day of April, bringing an end to National Poetry Month. Most people would likely not associate the world of poetry with the United States government, but in actuality, the Library of Congress, a government agency within the legislative branch, houses a highly prestigious cultural position in the literary world: the United States Poet Laureate.

What exactly does a United States Poet Laureate do? Well, even the definition provided by the Library of Congress, whose Librarian appoints the position on a yearly basis, is fairly broad, declaring that the chosen poet “seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Each Poet Laureate is given freedom to bring their own themes to the job, with past awardees concentrating on a myriad of projects close to the passions reflected in their own work and interests. In timely fashion, the current Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, has just received a second year at the post this week. When she was appointed in 2019, she became the first Native American to be named to the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

One of the projects Harjo is currently working on under her purview as Poet Laureate is a digital interactive map of contemporary Native poets titled “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry.” Throughout her career, Harjo has tirelessly highlighted the cultural richness of Native literary work. In her own writings, she explores the cultural history of her tribe, the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, and her personal struggles with a tumultuous past. These haunting poems are filled with examinations of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. Harjo never shies away from digging into lasting pain, whether it be that of her culture or that of herself, and how the present is a struggle to reconcile this pain with the necessity of moving forward and creating new beauty.

Another goal of Harjo’s as Poet Laureate has been to foster discourse through art between people she feels “normally would not sit with each other.” In a 2019 NPR article, she expanded on this hope: “I really believe if people sit together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond political divisiveness, it makes connections. There’s connections made that can’t be made with politicized language.” If you are interested in reading some of Harjo’s poetry from home, one of her collections, “In Mad Love and War,” is available as an e-book resource through the University of Memphis Libraries. I would also recommend checking out her page at the excellent website of the Poetry Foundation to learn more about her life and work.

Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Interested in exploring the duties and history of the Poet Laureate a bit more? Here are some useful links from the Library of Congress’s website!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.